Posts Tagged ‘Luke Timothy Johnson’

Why don’t “affirming” UMs simply admit that Jesus and the Bible are wrong?

July 23, 2015

The biggest theological celebrity at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson, supports overturning the unanimous verdict of two millennia’s worth of Christian reflection on the subject of homosexuality.

Does he do so because his scholarly research has shown him that St. Paul was referring only to non-consensual, exploitative, and idolatrous homosexual relationships? Or that Jesus’ “silence” on the subject was tacit approval? Or that, when it comes to condemning same-sex sexual relationships, most Christians are guilty of unprincipled picking-and-choosing?

Not at all.

In fact, Dr. Johnson, in a 2007 essay in Commonweal, agrees with people like me that the Bible condemns homosexual practice unambiguously. “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.”

In other words, Johnson says, the Bible got it wrong. Since “the Bible got it wrong” is the unchallenged presupposition of most theological and biblical education at my alma mater, Johnson’s position is hardly newsworthy. Since Johnson is relatively conservative, however, believing, for example, that Paul is the author even of the disputed Pauline letters and being an outspoken opponent of the “Jesus Seminar” movement, his affirmation of same-sex sexual behavior—at least for the reasons he gives—is surprising.

To his small credit, though, at least he doesn’t perform exegetical gymnastics to make the Bible say what it doesn’t say.

And writer Brandon Ambrosino also deserves some credit for making a similar point in his new article: Of course Jesus believed that homosexual practice was a sin!

Revisionist hermeneutics can seem pretty silly when we consider who Jesus was. Jesus, a first-century Jewish theologian, would almost certainly have held the traditional Jewish belief about same-sex relations—that is, he would have believed such sexual activity was sinful. Had Jesus departed significantly from Jewish tradition on this front, we can be sure that his disagreement would have been recorded (just like his reconsideration of divorce or his new interpretation of adultery). None of his biographers include a single instance of Jesus challenging the mainstream Jewish understanding of homosexuality, and Jesus more than once affirmed a male-female pattern of coupling as the proper domestic arrangement; it’s safe to conclude, then, that Christ would have agreed with the Levitical assessment of homosexuality as a sin. Any confusion about this seems motivated by contemporary politics, not ancient history.

Indeed.

Ambrosino is happy to concede, however, that Jesus is simply wrong, a product of his first-century Jewish culture and upbringing. This, he says, shouldn’t be a problem for us Christians—after all, as a “devout gay Christian who confesses both the divinity of Jesus and the inspiration of the Holy Scriptures,” he has no problem with it.

Nevertheless, in a Facebook post this week, Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at the mainline Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, puts the problem in sharp relief:

Contrary to what Ambrosino suggests, Jesus’ position on the male-female matrix for marriage was not an offhand comment or an undigested morsel of his first-century Jewish cultural environment. Nor did Jesus view the matter as ancillary to Christian faith. He treated this as part of the foundation of creation upon which all sexual ethics is based. He predicated on the God-intentioned duality and complementarity of the sexes a principle about number: There should be a duality of number in the sexual union matching the duality of the sexes required for that union. In other words, the twoness of the sexes in creation, obviously designed for sexual union, is a self-evident indication of the Creator’s will for the twoness of the sexual bond.

In my experience, I have yet to see one of my fellow UMC clergy who want to change our doctrine take seriously the implications of Jesus’ words about marriage in Matthew 19 and Mark 10. But few of them would say that Jesus is simply wrong.

But if he’s right, how many would be willing to revise their revisionism?

On Rev. Purdue’s post, Part 4: Bible translators know more about Greek than we do

June 8, 2015

This is the fourth part of my discussion of fellow United Methodist pastor Paul Purdue’s recent post, “The Bible and Homosexuality.” See my three previous posts for more.

In my three previous posts on this subject, I’ve refuted Rev. Purdue’s “argument from silence”: Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, therefore his silence indicates that he approves of homosexual practice in some cases. Next, I turned my attention to his misinterpretation of Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, which he used to suggest that Jesus was open to alternatives to marriage between one man and one woman for life.

Today, I’ll look at the way Purdue handles the apostle Paul’s three references to homosexual practice: Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-11, and 1 Timothy 1:8-11.

Mostly, he doesn’t handle them, unfortunately. Here’s the extent of his words about these passages themselves:

The Apostle Paul speaks about homosexuality in Romans 1:26-27, 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, & 1 Timothy 1:8-10. “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 6:9-10 NRSV) How do we read those three passages? Some scholars assert that Paul’s word usage connotes a casual promiscuous sexuality, not committed monogamous gay and lesbian marital relationships. I leave the particular word studies to the Greek scholars. However, we must not ignore or proof-text Paul’s teachings on homosexuality. We must consider the three passages in their context and in light of the entirety of Christian teaching.

Indeed, “some scholars” do assert that Paul’s usage “connotes a casual promiscuous sexuality, not committed monogamous gay and lesbian marital relationships.” Some scholars also deny that Jesus of Nazareth existed. What about it? We can always find a fringe of scholars in any academic discipline that assert any number of deeply eccentric ideas.

It’s only been in the past 40 years, however, in the wake of the sexual revolution and cultural pressure to affirm homosexual practice, that even a small minority of scholars believe that Paul is referring to something other than homosexual practice per se. Interestingly, even many mainstream, “gay-affirming” Bible scholars and historians, who’ve written extensively on the Bible and the practice of homosexuality in the ancient world, agree that the biblical witness against homosexual practice is clear and unambiguous. Here are three that I know of: William Loader, Bernadette Brooten, and Luke Timothy Johnson (from my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology at Emory).

In a Commonweal article written by Luke Timothy Johnson several years ago, in which he advocated for changing church doctrine on sexuality, 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.

My point is, if Purdue is sincere when he says he wants to “leave the particular word studies to the Greek scholars,” he ought to be prepared to accept their verdict: there is no ambiguity in the Bible regarding homosexual practice.

After all, Purdue isn’t very different from me (as far as I know). If he went to a UMC-approved, mainline Protestant seminary, much less an official UMC seminary like mine, and earned an M. Div., he isn’t any better prepared to argue the nuances of biblical Greek and Hebrew than I am, much less with scholars in the field. Our knowledge of Greek and Hebrew is limited, to say the least. We are, to some extent, at the mercy of scholars who know much more about ancient languages than we do.

But I’ve noticed that my gay-affirming colleagues in ministry—who, again, have a limited understanding of Greek and Hebrew themselves—often make appeals to the obscurity of these languages as a way of saying, “We can’t know for sure what Paul meant when he said these things that seem to relate to homosexual practice. We can’t know for sure the true meaning of these obscure Greek and Hebrew words.”

I disagree. First, if Greek and Hebrew are really so obscure, how do we know anything about what the Bible says—not just the things in the Bible that make us uncomfortable, but also those scriptures that we happen to like? After all, we rely on the same exegetical and hermeneutical resources to arrive at Christian convictions concerning God’s love, grace, and mercy as we do to understand that the Bible condemns homosexual practice in the strongest terms in both Testaments. Why do we think we know something in the former case but not the latter?

Keep in mind: There was absolutely no ambiguity about the meaning of Paul’s words prior to around 1980 or so. There just wasn’t! By all means, every Christian thinker could have been wrong up to that point, but how likely is that?

deyoung_homosexuality_The truth is, while neither Purdue nor I is well-prepared to argue Greek and Hebrew, we don’t need to in the vast majority of cases. Why? Because our English translations of the Bible are a reliable guide to understanding what the ancient Greek and Hebrew are saying.

In his new book, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality, Kevin DeYoung makes this point very well in reference to Paul’s words about homosexual practice in 1 Corinthians 6 and 1 Timothy 1 (emphasis mine).

The English translations are almost always right, especially when they basically say the same thing. Think about it: each of the nine translations listed above [ESV, HCSB, KJV, NAB, NASB, NIV (2011), NKJV, NLT, and NRSV] was put together by a team of scholars with expertise in biblical scholarship and the original languages. That doesn’t mean they can’t make mistakes or that we can’t learn new things they missed. But it does mean that after reading a few commentaries and perusing a couple of articles online you will certainly not know the ancient world or Koine Greek better than they did. If the translators thought a specific word really meant X (as seminary students and bloggers are apt to say), they wouldn’t have translated it as Y. Our English translations, imperfect though they may be, are faithful and reliable translations of the original languages. They do not need decoding.

I’ll continue to examine Rev. Purdue’s argument about Paul in my next post on the subject.

† Kevin DeYoung, What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 62.

Sermon 05-24-15: “Honor God with Your Bodies, Part 2”

June 2, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

This is the second of two sermons I preached on the issue that threatens to split our denomination in half: homosexuality. (Click here to read or listen to the first sermon.) In this sermon, I use Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 6 to refute the most common arguments used by opponents of the church’s stance. From my perspective, there is no room for compromise.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3 version of this sermon.]

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Last week, the Connectional Table, an official council of the United Methodist Church that includes twelve bishops, approved a petition that they will submit to General Conference next year, which, if approved by General Conference, would change our denomination’s stance on homosexuality. Their proposal redefines marriage as between not a man and woman but between two people.

I oppose the plan; in fact I don’t know anyone on my side who supports it. And maybe it won’t pass anyway. But as we look ahead to next year’s General Conference, as our United Methodist Church decides what to do about this most controversial issue that risks splitting our denomination apart, we can expect to hear more rumblings for change, and feel more cultural pressure to change. Read the rest of this entry »

The dangerous idea at the center of the new Methodist “centrist” movement

November 4, 2014
No "centrist" Methodist ought to claim that the Holy Spirit will reveal something that contradicts scripture.

No “centrist” Methodist ought to claim that the Holy Spirit will reveal something that contradicts scripture.

Please note: Whenever I write on the divisive issue of the UMC’s doctrine on sexuality, I do so as a sinner who stands in solidarity with my fellow sinners, regardless of the sins with which they struggle. As for me, I struggle daily with any number of desires that tempt me to sin. As I become aware of sin in my life, I do my best to confess, repent, and, by the power of the Spirit, change. And when I do, I’m deeply grateful that our Lord is “faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness”—a promise that holds for all penitent sinners. 

My point is, like every other human being, I’m a sinner who needs God’s grace and mercy at every moment. And like all who seek to be faithful to Jesus, I am a work in progress.

A while ago, I wrote about an important “hostile witness” for me and my fellow United Methodists who believe, alongside the unanimous verdict of nearly two millennia of Christian reflection on the subject, that God intends the gift of sex to be shared only by a man and a woman within the context of marriage. This witness’s name is Luke Timothy Johnson, perhaps the most prominent New Testament scholar at my alma mater, the Candler School of Theology.

He’s a “hostile witness” because Johnson is otherwise on the LGBT-affirming side. But he isn’t on that side because he believes scripture in any way endorses homosexual practice. On the contrary, as he wrote in Commonweal several years ago:

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… 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.

Notice in that last sentence he conflates “homosexuality,” about which scripture says nothing, with homosexual practice, which is indeed a “freely chosen” sin. To be clear: the church has never taught that experiencing same-sex attraction is a sin, only one’s decision to act on it, either by lusting or through more overt sexual behavior.

Nevertheless, Johnson, a liberal New Testament scholar, concedes that homosexual practice contradicts the “straightforward commands of Scripture,” and to argue otherwise is to “make Scripture say something other than what it says.”

In spite of scripture’s clear teaching, however, he argues in his essay that it’s possible that the Holy Spirit could be showing the church something new. He cites Acts 15 as a precedent: there, he says, the Holy Spirit showed the church something new—that Gentiles don’t first have to become Jewish in order be part of God’s covenant people. I’ll leave aside the question of whether that thing that the Spirit revealed to the church contradicted the Old Testament (I certainly don’t believe it did) to say that citing Acts 15 is beside the point: We know that Gentile Christians don’t have to be circumcised or follow dietary laws in order to become part of God’s covenant because the Holy Spirit has revealed this truth to us in scripture—in Acts 15 and elsewhere. In other words, the church wasn’t left to guess whether or not the Holy Spirit was showing us a “new thing” because this new thing is found in God’s inscripturated Word.

Do you see the difference?

Inconveniently for Johnson’s case is the fact that the Jerusalem council reaffirmed in that same chapter a few aspects of Torah that Gentiles had to follow, including the avoidance of porneia, sexual immorality, which in the Jewish Christian context of Acts 15 would have certainly included homosexual practice.

Again, Johnson would have us believe today that the Holy Spirit is revealing something new, which, by his own admission, contradicts scripture’s clear teaching. And that’s fine for Johnson. He isn’t Methodist.

We Methodists who are true to our convictions aren’t allowed to do what Johnson does. If Johnson is right about scripture’s clear teaching, then that alone would be a sufficient reason for holding fast to our United Methodist doctrine.

Am I wrong? Am I misrepresenting our Wesleyan doctrine of scripture? Please tell me how.

I mention all of this again because the new statement from the “United Methodist Centrist Movement” affirms, in at least three places, this same dangerous idea: that the Holy Spirit can reveal something that contradicts what this same Spirit has revealed in God’s Word.

In the opening paragraphs describing the importance of our remaining together and avoiding schism, despite our disagreements over homosexual practice, the authors state (emphasis mine):

Relationship is at the center of Biblical Prophetic Call and Witness as expressed in many other texts in addition to the ones mentioned above.  This call was and will always be connected within the context of community and covenant, even when the covenant community is being self-critical and certainly when the Spirit of God is doing a new thing.

In other words, we should “certainly” avoid schism if “the Spirit of God is doing a new thing”: not that the church was wrong for nearly 2,000 years in its interpretation of scripture, but that in spite of the fact that the church was right, the Holy Spirit is doing something new—in this case doing something that contradicts what the Spirit did for thousands of years in revealing God’s will through his Word.

Why would God the Holy Spirit do that to us? Does it make any sense that the Spirit would change course like that—and fail to reveal it to us in God’s Word? Yet, this is what these “centrists” would have us believe.

Later in the document, the authors write:

Many of us – while sensing a new movement of the Spirit may be at hand – are uncomfortable with the dynamics involved with the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the marriage of gay and lesbian persons in our local churches. We serve congregations that are by no means of one mind on this issue, in communities where Christians from other tribes are warning our people of the “dangers” of our denomination’s “precarious disunity.” We are tired of seeing the United Methodist Church in the national news only when a few in our ranks engage in a public dispute over homosexuality.

We also are aware of changing attitudes in our culture, particularly the young, as we serve congregations that are on the average, 20 years older and much more homogeneous than the general population. We are torn both by scripture which addresses issues of what is acceptable sexual practice and by the call of the prophets to love justice, offer mercy, and walk humbly with the Lord.

Here, these “centrists” are once again affirming that “a new movement of the Spirit may be at hand,” even a movement in the opposite direction of the Spirit’s movement in the past. Regarding the fact that they’re “torn” between God’s Word regarding sex and the word of the “prophets,” I wrote in my original post on the topic:

Why are they torn? Weren’t the prophets always the ones calling us back to being faithful to God’s Word? In which case, the only question that should concern us is, What is “acceptable sexual practice” according to scripture? If we get that answer right, I trust the prophets will also support us.

Notice that many of these “centrists” have no problem with the “ordination of non-celibate homosexuals and the marriage of gay and lesbian persons in our local churches”—mais non!—but only with the “dynamics involved.” These dynamics include the fact that many (older) church members are uncomfortable with it. No worries, though: Attitudes are changing, “especially among the young,” and those people who still have a problem with it will be dying off soon anyway. Then of course, those “discomforting” dynamics will no longer exist. Right?

In my original post, which was hastily written, I called the statement “disingenuous nonsense.” Upon further reflection, I not only affirm my original verdict but add that it’s disingenuous and dangerous nonsense.

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.