An unlikely ally for UMC traditionalists

June 26, 2014

In the rarefied world of mainline theological scholarship, New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, a Roman Catholic, is something of a superstar—at least the most popular and widely quoted professor at my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. In the comments section of a post earlier this week, a friend offered an excerpt from a Commonweal article that Dr. Johnson wrote in 2007.

I wrote a lengthy response, which you can read here. Johnson is arguing that we have biblical warrant for disregarding scripture’s clear teaching against homosexual practice in light of what the Holy Spirit is showing us through the lives of thousands of (practicing) gay and lesbian Christians. He uses the Jerusalem Council of Acts 15 as evidence. As I wrote in my comment,

It’s ironic that Johnson uses the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15 as part of his argument: while the council “reinterpreted Scripture in light of the experience of God,” they reaffirmed the proscription against porneia (sexual immorality), which the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem would have understood (without controversy) to include homosexual practice (alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality).

He refers to vv. 20-21 as a “compromise” made for the sake of Jewish Christians, but he can’t mean that, can he? He surely isn’t saying that the proscription against porneia, however one interprets it, isn’t a crucial aspect of holy Christian living!

By all means, the Jerusalem church is seeing that some parts of Old Testament law have fulfilled the purpose for which they were given; that they’re no longer binding on people who are now part of Christ Jesus. Interestingly, one part of the law that is still binding is that part that deals with sexual immorality—which, again, in context would have included homosexual practice.

He cites other examples from the New Testament of the early church revising its understanding of Old Testament law in light of what Jesus or the Holy Spirit was revealing in people’s lives. His point is this: because the early church did it, we can do it, too.

As I said in my comment:

Regardless—and this is my most important point about Johnson’s argument—all of this fresh reinterpretation or revisionism in light of what God is now revealing in people’s lives is revealed to us—where?

In scripture!

So we have a choice: we can, along with Johnson, view this work of reinterpretation as an ongoing project, which risks relativizing the Bible to the authority of personal experience. Or we can say that whatever help we needed in reading the Old Testament in light of the revelation of God in Christ the Word, the Holy Spirit has provided for us in God’s written Word.

Even my fellow United Methodists who seek to change our church’s traditional doctrine on human sexuality should be wary of enlisting Johnson as an ally. We are Protestants, after all (not to mention evangelicals at our roots). No argument that contradicts the plain meaning of scripture, properly exegeted and interpreted, should persuade us. Even according to our so-called “Wesleyan quadrilateral,” personal experience doesn’t get a veto over the Bible. Scripture is our primary authority.

Still, people on my side of this debate ought to enlist Johnson as an ally—a hostile witness. Why? Because in this article he says what people on my side been saying all along: all hermeneutical gymnastics to the contrary, the Bible is clear about what it teaches on homosexual practice.

I admire his integrity. He writes:

The task demands intellectual honesty. I have little patience with efforts to make Scripture say something other than what it says, through appeals to linguistic or cultural subtleties. The exegetical situation is straightforward: we know what the text says. But what are we to do with what the text says? We must state our grounds for standing in tension with the clear commands of Scripture, and include in those grounds some basis in Scripture itself. To avoid this task is to put ourselves in the very position that others insist we already occupy—that of liberal despisers of the tradition and of the church’s sacred writings, people who have no care for the shared symbols that define us as Christian. If we see ourselves as liberal, then we must be liberal in the name of the gospel, and not, as so often has been the case, liberal despite the gospel.

I think it important to state clearly that we do, in fact, reject the straightforward commands of Scripture, and appeal instead to another authority when we declare that same-sex unions can be holy and good. And what exactly is that authority? We appeal explicitly to the weight of our own experience and the experience thousands of others have witnessed to, which tells us that to claim our own sexual orientation is in fact to accept the way in which God has created us. By so doing, we explicitly reject as well the premises of the scriptural statements condemning homosexuality—namely, that it is a vice freely chosen, a symptom of human corruption, and disobedience to God’s created order.


2 Responses to “An unlikely ally for UMC traditionalists”

  1. steve Says:

    Oh. “Born that way”. As Lady Gags says.

    Or perhaps, as the Eurythmics Annie Lennox sings in ‘Missionary Man’….” I was born an original sinner…”.

  2. Gary Bebop Says:

    Before this is all played out, there will be many witnesses who will impeach themselves. Stand fast.

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