Posts Tagged ‘Jeff Cook’

Does a virtue-based ethic mean the church is wrong about sex?

April 17, 2015

Evangelical theologian Preston Sprinkle, who, like me, supports the church’s traditional stance against homosexual practice, is hosting a debate on his blog between himself and a gay-affirming Christian ethicist named Jeff Cook. There have been a few exchanges so far.

Cook’s argument, which you can read about here and here, is that the New Testament promotes a virtue-based ethic rather than a rule-based ethic for Christian living. We are not righteous, he says, because we follow rules—even God’s rules—apart from a corresponding change of heart. (I don’t disagree so far.) To make his case, Cook cites Jesus’ frequent denunciations of the Pharisees, for example. They followed all the rules, yet they were “like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.”

But here’s where it gets tricky: Following rules is good inasmuch as those rules promote virtuous living. If there’s no virtue at stake in following a rule (as he understands what counts as virtue) then Jesus, Paul, and the rest of the New Testament would say that we don’t need to follow it.

From Cook’s perspective, a committed, monogamous same-sex relationship is virtuous, therefore when Paul condemns homosexual practice, he must be talking about something other than that kind of relationship. And so, like many gay-affirming Christians, he interprets Paul’s words against homosexual practice to be about exploitative, non-consensual, and/or pederastic relationships.

There’s much to disagree with here. The most important question, as usual in these debates, pertains to one’s view of the authority of scripture. It strikes me as arrogant to say, as Cook seems to, that God’s Word—properly exegeted and interpreted—has to make perfect sense to our finite and fallible minds before we’re willing to obey it. In other words, if we believe that scripture tells us that homosexual practice, per se, is sinful, then why isn’t that enough for us?

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying, “God said it, I believe it, end of discussion.” On the contrary, I’m saying that we need to have the discussion first—to make sure that we have properly understood what God is telling us through his Word. But once we’ve done that—bringing our best thinking to bear and availing ourselves of the wisdom of the saints who’ve gone before us—then, as a matter of integrity, we ought be prepared to obey it, trusting that God is telling us the truth in the Bible that he gave us.

An open mind isn’t meant to remain open forever! As Chesterton said, “The object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.”

Be that as it may, in the comments section of Cook’s second post, I wrote the following, taking his argument at face value. Feel free to tell me where my logic fails:

Notice in 1 Corinthians 5, Paul confronts the issue of incest head-on. In doing so, he’s looking back to the sex “rules” of Leviticus 18 and 20. For all we know, this man and his stepmother were committed to a lifelong monogamous relationship (the man’s father was obviously dead). What harm would this man and his stepmother be causing anyone? He’s not related to this woman by blood. His father is out of the picture.

As Cook says, “because virtue and divine commands go hand in hand, there must be a virtue-focused reason,” in this case, for Paul’s objecting to this seemingly “borderline” incestuous relationship.

What possible virtue would this relationship be violating? In other words, what is the basis of Paul’s objection, other than that he believes that incestuous relationships, per se, are sinful—that they are, indeed, as contrary to God’s intentions for sexual behavior as homosexual practice?

I can’t imagine a virtue-based objection in this case. Can Cook?

Yet by Cook’s logic, unless there were such an objection, Paul ought to say that the “rule” against incest no longer applies in this case—so long as the couple were behaving virtuously. Instead, Paul tells the church to remove the man from their fellowship in hopes that he’ll come to his senses and be saved! Paul’s language couldn’t be stronger.

Cook is also confident, along with so many other gay-affirming Christians, that Paul is really talking about exploitative, non-consensual, pederastic, or idolatrous same-sex relationships, not committed, monogamous same-sex relationships. Granted, this would be a hard case to make, given that these kinds of relationships did exist and were well-known in the cosmopolitan circles in which Paul traveled.

Nevertheless, Cook’s words fail to appreciate that Paul also condemns lesbian sex in the same breath as male homosexual sex. Based on what I’ve read, lesbian sex in antiquity was not known to be exploitative, non-consensual, or pederastic.

Again, why does Paul fail to see any virtue in these relationships?

A good reason to believe in God

January 16, 2013

For a few months now, Scot McKnight has allowed a philosophy professor named Jeff Cook, a Christian, to guest-post on his Jesus Creed blog. Cook’s first series of posts was the Top Ten best reasons not to believe in God. The second series, which finished up today, is the Top Ten best reasons to believe in God. As interested as I am in apologetics, I found most of these reasons to be persuasive (why wouldn’t I, right?), if a bit mind-numbing. Not being a philosopher myself, all those P’s and C’s make my eyes glaze over. I prefer my arguments to be more narrative, if you know what I mean.

Still, even I thought the argument for today’s reason—love and freedom—which ranks #1 on his Top Ten reasons to believe in God, was straightforward and easy to follow. You might think that “love and freedom” are two reasons, but his point is that love is only possible if we are also free. (This should be uncontroversial, except to the most hardened Calvinist!)

Anyway, I’ll excerpt the argument and then add a few words to his.

P1  If materialism is true, love is a chemical reaction in your skull.
P2  Love is not simply a chemical reaction in your skull.
C1  Materialism is false.

Very few of us are able to look at our beloved, at our child, at our comrades and actually believe that our connection to them is *exclusively* chemical activity. Certainly some of it may be. But I would suggest many of us experience something more.

P3  If materialism is true, all our thoughts and actions are determined by the unthinking, non-rational movement of chemicals in our skulls.
P4  If P3, then if materialism is true we have no freedom of thought and action.
P5  We experience freedom of thought and action (we are in fact free of total coercion in both our thinking—what we believe—and our behavior—what we do).
C2  Materialism is false.

We think the human beings around us ought to do certain things (“avoid abusing children” for example) and believe certain things (“other human beings are valuable”). But if materialism is true our beliefs and actions are all determined by the unthinking matter in our skull over which “we” have no control.

He goes on to argue not only against materialism but for God. See the post.

In my view, this is a strong argument. Human freedom is a major problem for the philosophical materialist. Why? Because they live their lives as if freedom and love (and justice and any number of other things) have real meaning. In fact, we all do. We want badly for love and freedom to be real.

As far as I know, we can offer a strictly scientific or materialistic account for why we have the (illusory) experience of love and freedom, but this account is unsatisfying to those of us who aren’t complete nihilists.

And I know the counterargument: So what? We can want love, freedom, justice, beauty, God—and anything else—to be real and objectively meaningful, but our desire, no matter how strong, doesn’t make it so.

And of course that’s true.

But I used to hear the late Christopher Hitchens (and probably Richard Dawkins) talk a lot about “Occam’s razor”—the idea that the simplest explanation is best. So why resort to the “God” hypothesis if the atheistic hypothesis works just fine: Darwinian processes explain everything, so why bother with God?

I disagree that Darwinian processes “explain” everything, for a number of reasons. One thing it doesn’t explain, as Jeff Cook’s post pinpoints, is this desire. Throw the Christian God back in and suddenly that makes sense, too.