Posts Tagged ‘Robert Gagnon’

Adam Hamilton’s bucket list

March 12, 2014

By far my most widely read blog post is this one from 2012, responding to United Methodist megachurch pastor Adam Hamilton’s change of heart regarding our church’s traditional stance on human sexuality. I won’t rehash the arguments I offered there. I believe that I fairly represented his viewpoint, and I also believe I offered substantial reasons for rejecting it.

Hamilton used this week’s breaking United Methodist news to promote a forthcoming book he’s written about biblical interpretation called Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today. In it, he argues that there are three “buckets” into which scriptures fall. As he puts it,

  1. Scriptures that express God’s heart, character and timeless will for human beings.
  2. Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding.
  3. Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart, character or will of God.

I wouldn’t adopt this interpretive strategy—and I would be extremely reluctant to say which scriptures “never fully expressed the heart, character, or will of God.” (Does Hamilton still consider himself evangelical?) Nevertheless, if you are going to adopt it, you’d better have some very principled reasons for deciding on which scriptures belong in Buckets 2 and 3.

So, in which bucket does he put scriptures concerning homosexual behavior? Hamilton is being coy. He writes:

Consider Leviticus 20:13 in which God is said to command: “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall be put to death; their blood is upon them.”  Anyone who has a child that is gay would rightly ask, “Did God ever really command that gay and lesbian children be put to death?”  They might also ask, “Does God really see my child, or the love they share for their partner, as an abomination?”

First, we know God doesn’t “see my child… as an abomination,” because that’s not what this verse says, as Hamilton surely knows. Scripture condemns homosexual behavior in the strongest possible terms, but not the people who engage in it. Inasmuch as two homosexuals “share love”—authentic love—then, no, God doesn’t condemn that, either. God condemns homosexual behavior—which would include same-sex intercourse and lust, neither of which relates to “love” or the state of one’s being.

My point is, let’s not move the goal posts here.

I’m guessing Hamilton would put the Bible’s endorsement of capital punishment in the case of homosexual behavior in Bucket 3. (Jesus himself rejects capital punishment for the woman caught in adultery—”Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.”)

I’m also guessing he would put the Bible’s words about homosexual behavior being a sin (including not only Leviticus but the New Testament as well) in Bucket 2. About this bucket he writes:

Bucket two scriptures, those that expressed God’s will for his people in a specific time and circumstances but which do not express the timeless will of God, include the command that males be circumcised, commands regarding animal sacrifices, clean and unclean foods, and hundreds of other passages in the Law.  The Apostles, in Acts 15, determined that most of the laws like these were no longer binding upon Christians.

I’m glad he mentioned the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. This scripture is exactly on point when it comes to the discussion of homosexual behavior. The council met to decide the extent to which Gentile Christians had to first “become Jewish” in order to be fully Christian. Do Gentiles have to be circumcised? Do they have to observe Jewish dietary laws? The council ruled in Acts 15 that they don’t. But the church affirmed some parts of Old Testament law. They said Gentiles must abstain from “pollution associated with idols, sexual immorality, eating meat from strangled animals, and consuming blood.”

So, the church said that Gentile Christians must obey the Old Testament’s prohibition against “sexual immorality.” The Greek word is porneia, which alludes to Leviticus 18:6-23, which prohibits incest, adultery, intercourse between males, and bestiality.[†]

Hamilton wouldn’t argue that Leviticus’s words about incest, adultery, and bestiality fail to express God’s timeless will—in other words, that they belong in either Bucket 2 or 3. By what principle, then, does he argue that Leviticus’s prohibition of homosexual behavior belongs in Bucket 2 or 3?

I don’t blame anyone, in this day and age, for feeling like the Bible is wrong to condemn homosexual behavior. Opposition to homosexual behavior is as countercultural as it gets! But feelings aren’t an argument.

As I said above, if you’re going to adopt Hamilton’s interpretive strategy—not to mention to loudly trumpet your commitment to being a “biblical Christian”—you better have principled biblical reasons for deciding which scriptures belong in these different buckets.

By citing Acts 15, Hamilton shows, by his own logic, that he doesn’t—at least as it relates to homosexual behavior!

My colleagues on the pro-gay side often speak as if the meaning of porneia is impossible to fathom. According to Robert Gagnon, a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, however, it’s beyond dispute that first-century Jewish Christians would have understood porneia to include homosexual behavior—alongside adultery, incest, and bestiality. See, for example, Robert Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 435-6.

Jesus was no “prophet of tolerance”

February 17, 2014
Gagnon 5

Robert Gagnon

I’m in the middle of Robert A. J. Gagnon’s academic book The Bible and Homosexual Practice. Gagnon is a New Testament professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. His book, published by Abingdon in 2001, is often regarded as the most formidable biblical case against acceptance of homosexual practice. If my fellow Methodists who oppose our church’s traditional doctrine want to make a biblical argument for changing it, they will have to wrestle at some point with Gagnon’s arguments.

Gagnon rightly perceives that Christians on the other side of the issue are eager to enlist Jesus for their cause. (In the United Methodist Church, they enlist both Jesus and John Wesley—which is odd, given that Wesley explicitly opposed homosexual behavior.) They interpret Jesus’ silence on the subject as tacit endorsement: “The collective body of Jesus tradition includes no statement to the effect that same-sex intercourse is good or bad. Some combine this silence on the subject with Jesus’ embrace of sinners and emphasis on love and conclude that Jesus would not have criticized responsible and loving expressions of homosexual and lesbian conduct. At the very least, they allege, we cannot say with any reasonable degree of certitude that Jesus opposed such relationships in principle.”[1]

Unsurprisingly, Gagnon interprets Jesus’ “silence” differently. Since homosexual behavior was condemned in the strongest possible terms in first-century Judaism (and Gagnon has already laid out the Old Testament’s opposition to homosexual practice, which was confirmed as well in extrabiblical ancient Jewish writing), “it is very unlikely that Jesus would have adopted a fundamentally different stance toward same-sex intercourse, particularly given Jesus’ general approach to the Mosaic law.”[2] In other words, Jesus tended to amplify rather than diminish the demands of the law. Think of the antitheses in the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard it said… But I say to you…”

Moreover, we can infer from Jesus’ sexual ethics what he believed about homosexual behavior. When Jesus affirmed marriage as (exclusively) a lifelong union of man and woman in Mark 10:1-12, Jesus

shows no awareness, much less acceptance, of any other pattern—even though no Jew in antiquity could have been oblivious to homosexual relationships among many Gentiles. There was no need for him to comment on whether homosexual unions should be permitted and, if so, whether his stance on divorce and remarriage should apply to them too. The creation texts authorized only one type of sexual union. It would have been a foregone conclusion for him that homoerotic relationships and human-animal unions, both proscribed in Leviticus, were unacceptable. The whole point of Jesus’ stance in Mark 10:1-12 is not to broaden the Torah’s openness to alternative forms of sexuality but rather to narrow or constrain the Torah’s sexual ethic to disallow any sexual union other than a monogamous, lifelong marriage to a person of the opposite sex.[3]

Gagnon emphasizes Jesus’ uncompromising position on marriage and divorce, adultery, and lust (see Matthew 5:27-30) as evidence that

Jesus took sexual sin very seriously—in some respects more seriously than the prevailing culture in first-century Palestine. He regarded all sexual activity (thoughts and deeds) outside of lifelong marriage to one person of the opposite sex as capable of jeopardizing one’s entrance into the kingdom of God. In relationship to our own cultural context, Jesus’ views on sex represent on the whole a staunchly conservative position. Those who find in the Gospels a Jesus who is a prophet of tolerance, who forgives and accepts all (except, perhaps, the intolerant), regardless of behavioral change, have distorted the historical reality.[4]

Gagnon addresses the three stories in the Gospels that account for the “widespread conclusion that Jesus did not think sexual misconduct was a big deal”: the woman “who was a sinner in the city” who bathed Jesus’ feet with tears and anointed them (Luke 7:36-50); the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11); and the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4).

Regarding the woman of Luke 7:36-50, “It is inconceivable that this woman abounding in love for God and intensely grateful for forgiveness, will now continue in whatever activity earned her the notoriety of being a sinner. Luke, who more than any other New Testament author stresses repentance, certainly could not be illustrating that repentance and transformation are non-essential features of the Christian life.”[5]

Regarding the woman caught in adultery, we have misinterpreted Jesus’ words—”Neither do I condemn you”—in a strictly figurative way: that we have no right to think negatively of the woman’s actions—and besides, we’re all sinners, too.

“Casting the first stone” then takes on a whole new meaning. It no longer means a literal stone but rather any critical stance toward a person who commits adultery and remains unrepentant. Such interpretations hopelessly distort the sense of the story. Condemn here means to “execute the sentence of stoning,” and stoning refers to real stones, capital punishment, not a moral judgment about adultery… [Jesus’] parting words to her, “from now on sin no more” (8:11), demonstrate two crucial points: (1) Jesus and the Pharisees agree fully on the evaluation of adultery as sin; and (2) Jesus expects this act of incredible mercy, this making alive again of a woman who for all intents and purposes was as good as dead (as with the prodigal son), to deter the woman from ever committing adultery again.[6]

As for the woman at the well, her repentance and transformation in response to the gospel is evident in her subsequent actions.

In sum, the stories about Jesus’ encounters with women who were considered sexual sinners do not support the conclusion that Jesus was soft on sexual sin. He did allow these women to come into close contact with him. He did not fear the stigma attached to associating with such people. He advocated mercy as a means of stimulating repentance and devotion to God rather than support the death penalty. He understood that those who were forgiven the most would stand a good chance of loving the Forgiver the most… Jesus forgave sexual sins, like all other sins, in the expectation of transformed behavior. They were to go and sin no more.[7]

In case we miss this point about “going and sinning no more,” Gagnon discusses another class of sinner whose treatment by Jesus parallels his treatment of sexual sinners: tax collectors. “Few today who would argue that sexual purity was a low-priority issue for Jesus based on Jesus’ free association with sexual sinners, would also argue that Jesus was soft on issues of economic exploitation based on his free association with economic sinners.”[8]

If Gagnon is right that we can infer from Christ’s sexual ethics that he also opposed homosexual behavior—never mind St. Paul, never mind the Old Testament—would that be enough to change anyone’s mind?

Are there Christians who support changing church doctrine regarding homosexuality who would do so even if they believed—suspected? feared?—that Jesus himself opposed homosexual behavior during his earthly ministry?

That strikes me as a painfully uncomfortable amount of cognitive dissonance!

One critic in the comments section of a recent blog post accused me of being a hypocrite on the issue of homosexuality: If I’m a hardliner about homosexuality, why am I not also a hardliner about divorce and remarriage?

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)… 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.

Have I been inconsistent on this issue? As recently as last September, in a sermon on marriage, I said the following:

Today’s sermon is about, yes, love and marriage. In so many words, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that you can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable. Last week’s scripture touched on that theme. But Jesus goes a step further in this week’s scripture to say that not only are they inseparable, they are also permanent. Or at least they ought to be.

Obviously, when we consider the divorce rate, even among Christians, it’s clear that we are failing to take Jesus’ tough, uncompromising words as seriously as we should. There’s no way to read these words of Jesus and come to some conclusion other than divorce, in most cases, is wrong. It’s a sin.

I’m not sure I can be more explicit than that!

As for remarried people “living in sin,” I’ve never heard any Christian thinker construe “repentance” in that case to mean divorcing again. Repentance would mean acknowledging your wrongdoing, making restitution as much as possible to your ex and your children, doing everything in your power to make your current marriage work, and not divorcing again.

All sexual sin—whether related to divorce and remarriage, or adultery, or homosexual behavior, or lust—is forgivable sin on the condition that we repent. As I said in my September sermon,

We are all sinners. Church is a sinner’s club to which everyone is invited. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. And even if we haven’t sinned in one particular way, we have sinned in so many other ways. When it comes to sin, none of us has any moral high ground on which to stand. O.K.? The good news is that there’s always, always, always forgiveness for us sinners who repent, and our gracious God always gives us an opportunity to start again. If you hear me say nothing else, please hear me say that. Remember God’s grace!

1. Robert A. J. Gagnon, The Bible and Homosexual Practice (Nashville: Abingdon, 2001), 186.

2. Ibid., 187.

3. Ibid., 194.

4. Ibid., 209.

5. Ibid., 215.

6. Ibid., 216.

7. Ibid., 217.

8. Ibid., 217-8.

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.