Around the blogosphere

February 4, 2014

Or at least the small corner of which I happen to read…

satans_downfallLast year, Roger Olson’s writing on the subject of Satan and spiritual warfare helped convince me that I had shirked my pastoral responsibility to educate and warn people about the dangers we face from the principalities and powers. In earlier posts, he recommended Michael Green’s I Believe in Satan’s Downfall, which I’d also recommend to anyone. It’s out of print, but I bought a used copy through Amazon.

This week, Olson wrote another post on the topic, “Where in the Devil is Satan (in Modern Theology)?” He writes:

Few evangelicals will outrightly deny the reality of a personal power of evil called Satan or the devil. When you ask people many say “Oh, I read The Screwtape Lettersyears ago.” But you get the sense they (average  North American evangelicals) haven’t given the subject any thought since then (if even then). (I suspect many people read Lewis’s classic much as they read his fiction.)

I’ll freely admit my own guilt and complicity in this neglect. I grew up on a form of evangelical life that made Satan very prominent and lived in fear of him and his power—even though pastors, evangelists and Sunday School teachers often said “Greater is he that is in you….” I just wasn’t so sure about that because of how much they talked about the devil and his power—sometimes more than they talked about Jesus!…

I suspect many evangelicals in North America have simply over reacted to the over emphasis on Satan and demons in certain circles around the fringes of evangelicalism. And, really, the main reason I’m talking about this is to raise a question about that—our tendency to over react to extremes to the point of throwing the baby out with the bathwater…

In order to avoid dualism, many intellectual Christians have abandoned Satan altogether or absorbed Satan into God (or at least God’s will and plan). I, too, want to avoid dualism, but I don’t know how or why Satan is real and powerful and “the prince of this world.” All I can say with confidence is that he is a conquered enemy of God who is still causing a great deal of chaos. Why God allows it, I don’t know. That’s God’s business. That he will eventually take away all of Satan’s power and free us from his influence lies at the heart of biblical hope.

keller_bookScot McKnight’s blog includes an interview with Tim Keller about his most recent masterpiece, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering. If I haven’t convinced you to read this book by now, you’ll never be convinced.

Here, Keller discusses one of the book’s prominent themes.

Moore: It is common for people to get tripped up by the conundrum about the impossibility of God being both all-loving and all-powerful.  He may be one of the two, but He can’t possibly be both or there would be no suffering.  Not surprisingly, God’s wisdom, which changes everything, is always left out of the supposed dilemma.

How can we grow in our confidence of God’s wisdom when we are suffering?

Keller: There are two ways to grow in confidence in God’s wisdom.  The first may sound strange—we need to be less confident of our own wisdom.  This may be very hard for modern people.

Throughout history, people struggled with suffering and asked God ‘why?’ all the way back to Job.  But virtually no one on record thought suffering and evil made God’s existence impossible until the Lisbon earthquake of 1755.  Why the change? By the mid-18th century the earliest forms of secularism had begun to develop.  In the past it was assumed that if God was infinite and ineffable then his ways would have to be beyond our comprehension.  So evil that was inexplicable to us—made perfect sense.  If there was a God who created all things—of course he would be infinitely wiser than we are and we could never have the insight to call him on the carpet for how things are going in the world.  But the modern belief was that all truth could be discovered by human reason.  As we got larger in our own eyes and more sure that we understood how the universe worked, and how history should go, the problem of evil became so intolerable.

But this was all to a great degree because of our own hubris.  If we can recapture that bigger view of God and the more realistic view of our own limitations, it would be easier to trust God’s wisdom.

The other way, of course, is to look at the Cross.  There we see something that, to the onlookers, appeared to be a defeat.  God had abandoned the best hope of the world. How could God bring anything good out of that?  But we have the vantage point such that we can get at least a glimpse of the infinite wisdom of the Cross.  If God can work his wisdom in suffering like he did in Jesus’ life—he can do it in ours as well.

Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, pointed his readers to this post by Andrew Comiskey on the problem of gay marriage:

It shows no dignity to our fellow humanity to ‘high five’ bad moral decisions. We can still love others while disagreeing with their choices. In fact, disagreeing with ‘gay marriage’ is much more costly today than blessing it. Young people who applaud gay weddings are not lampooned as haters and bigots. Rather, they are extolled as loving and tolerant, on the ‘right side of history.’

The core issue, however, is not ‘gay marriage.’ What has been lost in this debate is the truth that something is wrong with homosexuality. We no longer understand moral disorder in the context of same-sex attraction. Power brokers of all sorts have successfully brainwashed a generation into believing that being gay is natural and good, not disordered in the least.

Of course, our gut reaction is a bit different. Most wonder if an intense longing for one’s own gender isn’t a little off, and if the ‘wedding’ of same-gender friends is really a marriage at all. Still we stifle that hunch for the sake of being ‘nice’ to gay people. Perhaps it is not so much that we are loving as we are cowardly.

Finally, on the same subject, I listened to last Sunday’s sermon by fellow United Methodist pastor Jason Micheli, who attempts to analyze homosexuality from a Wesleyan Quadrilateral perspective. Micheli supports changing our church’s traditional stance. I credit him for talking about the issue (as part of a sermon series he’s been preaching on marriage). Nevertheless, while he purports to stand above the fray in this sermon, the game is rigged. Here was my initial comment that I posted on his blog, to which he replied. (Click on image to expand.)

micheli2

To which I wrote the following:

“Fairly fair”? By your score, it was 3.5 to 0.5 against the traditional position. That’s a laugh. You wrote as if the only reason we have our traditional position is because of a few stray verses here and there, mostly in Leviticus (as if just because it’s in Leviticus it no longer applies). Isn’t the Great Commandment also in Leviticus? Is that no longer binding?

What about Genesis 2 and Paul’s echo of that in Romans 1? What about Jesus’ affirmation of marriage between man and woman in Matthew 19? Reason itself seems to affirm that given complementary nature of our sex organs, God intends for sex to be a gift shared between man and woman only. (And before you bring it up, anal sex is physiologically harmful.)

It’s unlikely (and science certainly doesn’t prove) that people are “born gay,” but what of it? People are born with all sorts of congenital illnesses, many of which are fatal. You hardly prove your point that because people are born a certain way, that’s the way God intends.

Regardless, you don’t contend with the New Testament’s affirmation of celibacy as a viable and blessed way to live.

You’ve surely heard or read people like N.T. Wright demolish the idea that “Paul couldn’t have imagined lifelong, monogamous homosexual relationships.” In fact, they existed in Paul’s day, philosophers wrote about them, and Paul was a smart guy.

But not just Paul… What about every other Christian thinker until about 1971? See, that’s the weight of tradition that you haven’t contended with. Why did all these otherwise smart, compassionate Christian saints fail to imagine that homosexuals could live together in lifelong, monogamous relationships? Why did none of them question the biblical teaching?

And would you really have us believe that prior to the 20th century, no one imagined that some people had a relatively fixed same-sex sexual orientation—even if they didn’t use the word “homosexual”? That seems incomprehensible to me.

You know that arguments from silence (“Jesus never said anything about homosexuality.”) are spurious. First, we have no idea what Jesus did or didn’t say about it. It’s not recorded in the Gospels. Second, given that we know for sure that first-century Judaism outlawed homosexual behavior, we could as easily interpret Jesus’ “silence” as a tacit endorsement of the status quo.

You also know that while Jesus loved and accepted the marginalized, he didn’t do so without the demand for repentance of sin.

You talk a lot about love, but you never concede that if homosexual behavior is a sin, it would be unloving not to warn people against it—to recommend change (which is possible in many cases, especially with lesbians) or celibacy.

All that to say, you haven’t been close to “fairly fair.”

In case you’re not Methodist, the Quadrilateral says that scripture is our primary authority guiding Christian belief and practice. We properly read and understand scripture through the lenses of tradition, reason, and experience.

By the way, Wesley himself never talked about a Quadrilateral. Some Wesleyan scholars in the 20th century argued that it was implicit in the way he did theology. Seems reasonable enough, although it doesn’t say all that much, and it’s nothing unique to Methodism: the Anglican tradition of which Wesley was a part speaks of a trilateral source of authority, leaving out experience.

Regardless, contrary to the way Micheli speaks of it, the Quadrilateral is not a four-legged stool (which will always wobble). It’s a three-legged stool. The “seat” is scripture, which is supported by these other things. So, even if Micheli made a slam-dunk case using tradition, reason, and experience (which he didn’t), none of these three sources of authority get a veto over the Bible.

18 Responses to “Around the blogosphere”

  1. Clay Knick Says:

    That four legged stool is not worth sitting on. They are not equilateral and that idea is what has made the UMC theologically chaotic.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Thank you! The last time I studied the Discipline’s language on it, it seems clear to me that it’s saying scripture is primary. My professor for Part 2 of the History of Christian Thought at Candler (a Lutheran pietist) said that Wesley believed that they equilateral. What?!

  2. Clay Knick Says:

    He needs to talk to Oden.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m sure! By his own admission, he didn’t know much about Wesley prior to being hired by a Methodist-affiliated theology school.

  3. Jay Says:

    Just another bigot.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’ve been called worse, Jay. But forget about me: think of some Christian saint in history that you might like or respect. Why did they accept the church’s traditional stance? What was their problem? Even today, what’s Pope Francis’s problem? Why does he believe that homosexual behavior is sinful? Are we all bigots, in your opinion? Is that all it comes down to?

  4. Mary Says:

    You seem slightly obsessed with this topic, but since you brought it up AGAIN i’ll comment here. “…to recommend change (which is possible in many cases, especially lesbians)…” Do you hear yourself when you talk? If I didn’t know better I would think you were completely ignorant.

    • brentwhite Says:

      My fellow UMC clergy are in the news nearly every week for breaking church law regarding this issue. I’m writing about homosexuality because it is the hot topic, for better or worse, in the United Methodist Church right now. And when I look around the web, I don’t see a lot my fellow clergy defending a doctrine that all of them said they believed in. We were asked questions specifically about this. Did these renegade clergy all experience a change of heart?

      I did have a change of heart (and mind) on the issue. Except I moved in the other direction. I graduated seminary, like many of my classmates, happily liberal on this and other subjects, with a very low regard for biblical authority. I’ve since changed. I’ve moved to the right. I had an evangelical “re-conversion,” if you want to call it that.

      Some of my anger is probably directed at the person I used to be. Who knows?

      You probably know that sexual orientation isn’t as “binary” as media and pop culture want us to believe: it’s on a spectrum. And you also probably know that every gay person isn’t “born” that way (if anyone is). And that orientation is more fluid for some people than others. There is peer-reviewed research that demonstrates that change is possible in some cases. (In fact, prior to 1973, when the APA changed their stance on homosexuality, these cases were well known.)

      And for what I can only imagine are very interesting sociological reasons, it happens more frequently for lesbians than gay men. That was my only point.

      Obviously, change becomes much more difficult if everyone says it’s impossible—even though it’s a proven fact that it does happen for many people. From what I’ve read, LGBT activists say that what counts as successful change is only the complete absence of any same-sex attraction. But that buys into the myth of the binary. Attraction, as I said, is on a spectrum.

      Regardless, the Church has always recommended celibacy for everyone, gay or straight, outside of a marriage, which by definition is between man and woman. The UMC holds this position in common with Catholics, Orthodox, the Church of England, Pentecostals, and most evangelicals. If I’m a bigot on this issue, I’m in good company. Me and Pope Francis and Billy Graham! I can live with that.

      Anyway, I’ll quote something I wrote a couple of weeks ago. I believe this passionately:

      “Let me preface this post by saying that I don’t enjoy writing about homosexuality. I say, along with Paul, that I am the worst of sinners who is constantly in need of God’s saving and forgiving grace. I don’t intend to place myself above gay and lesbian Christians who struggle with same-sex attraction. I have misdirected desires of my own, and I fall into sin. I feel nothing but compassion for my fellow sinners.”

  5. Mary Daly Says:

    I am sure you know what the bible has to say about slavery? Would you defend that?

  6. Mary Daly Says:

    I guess I was wrong in thinking of Galations 3:28 as a “clear” statement. Let me put this in a United Methodist context. Do you agree with where the United Methodists stand on divorce? The way I understand it, the UMC does not deny divorced persons the right to remarry, correct? And it also does not put specific terms to what constitutes an “acceptable” reason for divorce, right? It suggests counseling and calls divorce a “regrettable option”, right? Though Jesus makes a very clear statement about this in the book of Matthew. But for some reason the United Methodists have decided to overlook this. Where do you stand? With what your denomination says or with what Jesus says? I have noticed you talk about marriage a lot, but you do not decry divorce nearly as loudly as you do homosexuality. I have not heard you tell your divorced parishioners who are remarried that they are living in sin. Am I wrong? Please direct me to any posts that do so.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Galatians 3:28 is great! Maybe I misunderstand you, but I don’t disagree that that verse is one important part of the biblical case against slavery. Our status before God makes us equal, by all means.

      As for divorce, I know very few Methodists who could look at the divorce rate among Methodists and imagine it represents anything other than a tragic failure to obey our Lord in this area of our lives. It is this failure that makes divorce “regrettable.” (“Regrettable” is putting it mildly, I’m afraid, but Methodists tend to put things mildly.) So you won’t get any argument from me that our Discipline’s language could be strengthened against divorce.

      In fairness, it does say that “God’s plan” is for lifelong marriage. It’s therefore not a stretch to say—in most cases—that deviation from that plan represents sin. It’s Methodist-ese to use words like “brokenness” in place of the harsher sounding word “sin.” Likewise, homosexuality represents “brokenness,” if you want to put it that way. I don’t have any problem with that.

      Besides, speaking strictly legalistically, how often is it the case that a couple is “estranged beyond reconciliation”? And what constitutes “thoughtful consideration and counseling”? If those conditions aren’t met, then even for us milquetoast Methodists, divorce ought not be undertaken. Right?

      As for Jesus’ words, he gives an exception (for “sexual immorality”) and Paul gives another exception in 1 Corinthians 7. As I wrote elsewhere recently: “I don’t believe that the Holy Spirit inspired Paul to contradict Jesus. Instead, I believe we can harmonize Jesus and Paul to say that divorce, like war, is always a tragic consequence of human sin; it should be permitted only rarely—as an option of last resort; and grace should abound for sinners in the midst of it.”

      Regardless, no one is saying or implying that divorce is OK. It’s a result of “brokenness,” which—again—means sinfulness. But the same forgiving grace that’s available for sinners who divorce and remarry is the same forgiving grace that’s available to non-celibate homosexuals who repent.

      I hear this argument a lot from my fellow Methodists who want to change our church’s traditional stance on homosexuality: “Aren’t we all sinners?”

      Yes! Exactly! We are all sinners! We all sin in a multitude of ways. I sin and have sinned in a multitude of ways—and I’m ashamed of it, I’m deeply sorry for it, I’m deeply sorry for people I’ve harmed through my sin, and I’m trying my best, by the power of the Spirit, to repent and change and grow. Repenting of sin is a lifelong process for us Christians, and there’s always, always, always sufficient grace through the cross of Christ for all of us to find forgiveness when we repent and turn to God. Praise God!

      But no one would be doing me any favors, if or when I’m living in a condition of unrepentant sin, by telling me that I’m not really sinning. On the contrary! The power of self-deception in my life is so great that I could easily believe that with very little encouragement.

      All that to say, church ought to be a sinner’s club. But in order to be a sinner’s club, we have to recognize that we are sinners who need to repent of sin.

      No one is saying, I hope, that non-celibate homosexuals are uniquely sinful. We’re all in the same boat.

      • Mary Daly Says:

        I guess I don’t understand why you call for homosexuals to be celibate but you don’t seem opposed to divorced people (who may have divorced for reasons other than adultery) remarrying (and assumedly having sex). I think you talk so much about homosexuality precisely because it’s a hot topic. But by your own logic you are allowing remarried divorced people to live in their sin if you don’t speak out against what they are doing.

  7. brentwhite Says:

    But I’ve just told you that divorce and remarriage is a sin in many cases. I’ve told you that divorce is always a consequence of sin. But I’ve also told you that given that we have not one but two (seemingly conflicting) exceptions in scripture for divorce and remarriage, a fair way to reconcile this is to say that “divorce, like war, is always a tragic consequence of human sin; it should be permitted only rarely—as an option of last resort; and grace should abound for sinners in the midst of it.” If that’s a fair interpretation of this scripture, then I certainly can’t issue a blanket statement that in each and every case, divorce and remarriage is wrong.

    I don’t see in scripture any kind of latitude whatsoever for homosexual behavior. You would probably accuse me of nitpicky legalism when it comes to homosexuality, but I don’t see it that way at all. Go back to the beginning of scripture: Genesis 1 and 2. It seems clear that marriage between one man and woman represents God’s plan for humanity. Jesus echoes this in Matthew 19. Paul affirms this Romans 1 and echoes is in Ephesians 5. One man, one woman, lifelong marriage—that seems like a terribly important principle. It’s not accidental that God puts man and woman together. Adam and Eve are not meant to represent any two consenting adults who live in a lifelong, monogamous relationship.

    Assuming you believe in God (otherwise, why bother reading my blog?), you surely agree in principle that God our creator has the right to tell us how we use the bodies he gives us? If he wants marriage and sexual relationships to take place between a man and woman in marriage, he gets to say so.

    The counterargument often is, “We don’t really know what God says on the subject.” I disagree. How God intends for us human beings to behave sexually was sufficiently clear to faithful, compassionate saints for two millennia. Nothing has changed in modernity except our culture’s attitude toward homosexuality.

    Be that as it may… In a sense, your objection is beside the point. If I’m wrong about marriage and divorce (or if the UMC is wrong), it says nothing about the rightness or wrongness of homosexual behavior. It only says I’m being a hypocrite. But two wrongs don’t make a right.

    Rest assured, if our Discipline said that God doesn’t intend for marriage to be a lifelong covenant between a man and woman, and that divorce is inconsequential, I would be talking about it much more than I do. I think the church ought to err on the side of grace. From the Bible itself, we can’t always judge when a couple’s divorce is unwarranted. Sorry… we just can’t. We already have two exceptions in the New Testament. And I can’t imagine the Lord would have couples stay, for example, in a physically abusive marriage—that would contradict a bunch of other scripture. There are competing principles and values at work in the Bible, and when that’s the case, we have to use wisdom and compassion to sort them out.

    As for people who have divorced (say for the wrong reason) and remarried, what would you have the church do? Again, assuming they’ve already consummated the relationship, two wrongs don’t make a right. I can’t imagine any reasonable interpretation of scripture suggesting that the best thing for couples to do, under the circumstances, would be to divorce again. How would that make sense? “Divorce is wrong, therefore get a divorce”? (That many of them will divorce again, just looking at the stats, is beside the point.) Under the circumstances, a remarried couple should do their best to make their existing marriage work, and repent of the sin that contributed to the first divorce.

    I’m not dumb. I know I’ve already spent too much time taking your words at face value. You want to say, if the church has no problem with divorce and remarriage, then why does it have a problem with homosexuality. As I’ve shown, however, the church—even the watered-down form represented by the UMC—does have a problem with divorce and remarriage, even as they err on the side of grace.

    People who disagree with the church’s traditional stance on homosexuality, by contrast, want us to believe that there’s never a problem, under any circumstances whatsoever, with being gay. Whereas married sex is a gift of God, getting to the heart of God’s intentions for humanity, homosexual sex is always condemned in the strongest possible terms. It is a grave sin. This has been the unanimous verdict of Christian thinkers for nearly 2,000 years.

    In summary, I don’t see any room for latitude or compromise on homosexuality. And as I’ve argued above, I’m not persuaded that the Christian case against divorce is equivalent to the Christian case against homosexual behavior. Even if it were, however, that would only prove I’m a hypocrite, not that I’m wrong on homosexuality.

    But I’m curious: you seem disappointed with me for agreeing with the doctrine of 95 percent of universal church, not to mention the doctrine that I was supposed to have agreed to when I was ordained. The churches that have accepted homosexual behavior represent a tiny sliver of global Christendom—and one that is rapidly shrinking, by the way. Why do my words bother you so much?

    Pope Francis, for example, has gotten great press recently for being, like, the most compassionate person in the world. I agree with him! I know I’m not him (God knows), but I’m at least exhibiting the same integrity on this particular issue. Right?

    • Mary Daly Says:

      What makes you think that what the Pope says would matter to me anymore than what you say? To me you and the Pope are little more than two godly men who think they are right and may or may not be. Why should I give credence to what you say about homosexual marriage when you pose such a weak argument about divorce? If you are going to pick up a flag on the sanctity of marriage then do it all the way! It is disappointing to see someone who is obviously, as you say, not dumb espouse such a limited view on homosexuality. Perhaps I will do us both a favor and quit reading your blog.

      • brentwhite Says:

        “Why should I give credence to what you say about homosexual marriage when you pose such a weak argument about divorce?”

        As I said, if I’m wrong on marriage, at worst that makes me a hypocrite. It doesn’t mean that I’m wrong on homosexuality.

        As it is, I think I’ve put forward a reasonable argument against what you’ve said about marriage. If my argument is weak, please tell me why. Where have I got it wrong?

        I would love for you to engage the argument more extensively than just accusing me of hypocrisy.

  8. Mary Daly Says:

    Your argument about marriage is weak in the following way (this is not to illustrate anything about homosexuality, but rather how you have failed your heterosexual parishioners/readers who may be considering divorce): You say that divorce (with some exceptions) is sinful and to re-marry compounds that sin. It is bad and unacceptable and all that. But do you warn them that if they remarry they are (in the words of Jesus Christ) living in sin? Probably not. When they remarry you throw up your hands and say, “What can I do? Another divorce would be more sin.” Do you tell them to practice celibacy or they will (in the words of Jesus Christ) be living in sin? Probably not. Fail.
    As for homosexuality, your comments about monogamous same sex orientation in ancient history are ridiculous. Any explanations I could give are based in history and logic. I know that you have heard these arguments (and perhaps even used them in the past), but chosen to reject them. You have rejected logic and history so as to change your mind on this topic. So I won’t even bother. I can’t change your mind just as you can’t change mine.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Well, I haven’t said anything in this public blog conversation that I don’t say in church. Besides, church members read this blog, too.

      I think you’ve missed my emphasis on God’s grace. As for “living in sin,” those are your words, not mine. I guess we all live in sin, because we all continue to sin. I made reference to unrepented sin—by all means, that’s spiritually harmful. We need to repent of sin as we become aware if it. But there are always opportunities for grace and forgiveness.

      During Prince Charles’s second wedding, for example, he and Camilla were made to say some strong words about repentance during the liturgy, which I hope reflected the state of their hearts. I don’t know why you think God can’t provide a fresh start—or why you think I should think that.

      (Because let’s be clear: you don’t think I’m wrong on marriage and divorce; only that by my own logic, I should change my view on homosexuality. What I’ve argued above is that they’re not equivalent issues. You say I’m wrong on history and logic. Obviously I disagree—as would many scholars. But give me credit for knowing something about the Bible, theology, and Christian tradition.)

      Again, there’s always grace for those who will receive it. I apologize if I haven’t been clear on that point.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s